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Could 3D Scanning Give Eternal Life To Endangered Cultural Artifacts?

CultScan3D is a virtual preservation company that could protect the world's most valuable art from an untimely demise.

When an earthquake struck the UNESCO heritage site Bam, Iran in 2003, many of the world’s oldest adobe structures were reduced to rubble. One year later, a fire in Weimar, Germany destroyed 50,000 books at the Duchess Anna Amalia Library, another UNESCO site. And in 2009, Cologne, Germany’s Historical Archive suddenly collapsed, burying with it hundreds of thousands of historic documents, some of which dated back to the 900s.


These are just a few examples cited by German research group CultLab3D when explaining how disasters can permanently erase culture, and they're also sources of inspiration for the group’s 3D scanning technologies—which are specifically designed for art preservation.

“Our museums and cultural institutions are home to millions of cultural heritage artifacts,” says a description at CultLab3D’s website. “The collection of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin and its multiple museums alone is estimated to amount to 6 million artifacts of which only 10% are presented to the public, while 90% remain archived and eventually ‘undiscovered.’”

“The demand for simple-to-use, economic, high performance 3D digitization is steadily increasing with the numbers of cultural heritage artifacts to be preserved.” CultLab3D notes that their aim is to offer their services at a price that’s 10 to 20 times cheaper than similar technologies being used today, and takes a fraction of the time, too. Feasibly, if more museums adopted this tech, an array of precious items could be protected from any untimely demise.

Last week, the research group participated in one of their first major trials at Frankfurt’s sculpture museum, the Frankfurt Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung. By using their constellation of in-house technologies—CultScan3D, CultArm3D, and CultSoft3D—they were able to digitally archive pieces like Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi’s Renaissance-era sculpture, Apollo Belvedere.


CultLab3D’s process depends on thre main components. The first, CultScan3D, is a structure of two aluminum arcs which host a series of nine high-res cameras and nine ring lights. This takes a preliminary scan of the object, achieving a digital rendering within four to five minutes that’s accurate on a sub-millimeter level. Then, the object passes on to CultArm3D, which hovers around its surface to get further readings of geometric and textural elements. These processes are operated, and their results recorded, by the CultSoft3D computer software.

According to ArtNet, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung director Max Hollein said this technology could offer “ultimate global digital access to art-historical contents and research results.” Furthermore, if an object is damaged, CultLab3D could potentially be used to remodel or even recreate any work of art with meticulous detail.

Even though CultLab3D saw some success with the museum trial run, the company noted how dealing with a rich variety of sculpture materials—as well as environmental qualities unique to the museum space—have given them a good sense of what they need to update when heading back to the drawing board.

Once they tackle that, it’ll be exciting to see what they do with their CultLab3D Airborne project, which, based on pictures at CultLab3D’s website, looks like it’s going to use drones as a means to scan historical buildings and monuments. It's too soon to tell if this technology will be adopted by more museums, but if there was ever an art apocalypse we know who to call.


Keep up to date with news on these projects over at CultLab3D’s website. All images courtesy CultLab3D.

Follow Johnny Magdaleno on Twitter: @johnny_mgdlno


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